Training the Face: Strategic Practice as a Means to Regulate Affect-Induced Facial Muscle Contractions

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Recently, it has been shown that the activation of affect-induced emotional reactions (i.e., manual approach/avoidance movements) can be modulated by strategic practice. The present study explored whether this modulation would also apply to affect-induced facial muscle contractions, which have been discussed to be relatively inflexibly linked to the processing of affective stimuli. In 2 experiments, participants conducted 2 different categorization tasks on positive and negative pictures of facial expressions (Experiment 1) or emotional scenes (Experiment 2) which were randomly framed in different colors. Black frames signaled to conduct an affective categorization which had to be executed either with a congruent or incongruent stimulus-response (S-R) mapping. Green or blue frames signaled to conduct a color classification (i.e., affective Simon task). Importantly, significant reductions of the affective Simon effect (that is, faster/more accurate positive [negative] responses to positive [negative] stimuli when categorizing a nonvalence stimulus feature) occurring after practice of incongruent (as compared with congruent) S-R mappings were observed for both manual and facial emotional responses. Importantly, the associative strength of long-term links does not limit the controllability of emotional responses through strategic practice. Thus, these results highlight the importance of practice as an effective means to even regulate facial muscle contractions.

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